When I opened the in-ﬂight magazine on my trip to the capital of Arizona, a well-timed headline captured my attention: “Phoenix Is Hipper Than You Think.” I was on my way to the desert for a press trip hosted by Visit Phoenix to discover what makes the destination a mega-event magnet. Phoenix was gearing up to complete the ultimate trifecta in hosting major American sporting events — the 2015 Super Bowl, the 2016 NCAA College Football Championship, and the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four — and while I was familiar with the Valley of the Sun as a destination for buzzer beaters and touchdowns, I knew little else about what makes it tick.
It didn’t take long to conﬁrm the promise of the city’s hipness. Checking in to the FOUND:RE — pronounced “foundry” — I was greeted by a massive painting of Burt Reynolds’ infamous 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold photo shoot. After a $25-million renovation, the hotel opened in October 2016 with a commitment to showcasing painters and sculptors who call Phoenix home. Now, the eight-story, 105-room property feels like an art museum with industrial-chic lofts where guests can stay if they’ve consumed too many cocktails. With works from 25 local artists on display throughout the rooms, common spaces, and meeting environments, the FOUND:RE is a testament to why so many major brands are borrow-ing cues from boutiques: because travelers crave a sense of approachable authenticity.
“We never use the words exclusive or luxury,” Parley Stock, director of sales and marketing at the FOUND:RE and a proud native Arizonan, told me. “The property speaks for itself in its design, and we want to make sure that anyone who walks in our doors feels this city’s inspiration.”
It was tempting to order a second round of the refreshingly spicy margaritas on the patio at MATCH, the hotel’s bar and restaurant, but I had more to explore on my ﬁrst evening in Phoenix. Accompanied by Doug Mackenzie and Trish Lanteigne — director of media relations and media-relations manager, respectively, for Visit Phoenix — I hopped on the light-rail train to Chase Field for an exhibition game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cleveland Indians. It was the ﬁrst game I’ve ever actually wished for seats that were farther away from the ﬁeld. Why? Some extra distance delivers fans to one of the most unique event spaces in sports: a private outdoor swimming pool behind the right-ﬁeld fence for groups of up to 35 people.
The NCAA semiﬁnals and ﬁnals were set to occur about 20 miles northwest of the city, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, but on Friday morning, downtown already buzzed with anticipation of the weekend competition. Our breakfast at District in the 1,000-room Sheraton Grand — “Grand” is the highest level of distinction for the Starwood brand — included a few special guest sightings. The National Association of Basketball Coaches was utilizing a portion of the property’s 112,000 square feet of meeting space for its legislative meeting in conjunction with the Final Four, and some of the group’s most well-respected members were doing what all conference attendees do: networking. Roy Williams, head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, offered us a casual greeting on our way to a table, and Steve Alford, head coach of the UCLA Bruins, stopped for a photo with one of the writers in our group.
Meanwhile, fans were arriving for Final Four weekend. Three blocks away at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown — the official hotel for the University of Oregon — a line of guests in Oregon-green shirts, hats, pants, and glasses stretched around the lobby waiting to check in. The crowd was in no rush for their rooms, though. A number of the team’s players were there, too, shaking hands and signing autographs. I didn’t get to check out much of the property’s 50,000 square feet of event space — with Oregon players and coaching staff in private meetings, a lot of it was off-limits — but Jon Erickson, the Renaissance’s director of sales and marketing, introduced us to some of its unique components, including a basement art exhibit, a rooftop event space, and the ﬁrst-ﬂoor Dust Cutter bar and restaurant. Erickson offered me a lunchtime cocktail that fused mezcal, beet shrubs, maple syrup, and lime juice. Of course, I accepted.
One block east, thousands of fans had transformed the lower-level halls at the Phoenix Convention Center into their daytime home for hoops at NCAA Fan Fest. Tickets to the games in Glendale came with a steep price tag — the cheap seats were going for $500 each — but Fan Fest provided an opportunity for everyone to enjoy the festivities. With $5 tickets for kids and $10 tickets for adults, fans could participate in free-throw and dunk contests, take photos with the championship trophy, and get memorabilia signed by past NCAA stars.
Peace in the Valley
Every corner of downtown pulsed with an electric energy, but I was ready for a break. Fortunately, I didn’t have to travel far for an opportunity to unwind. For the second half of my stay, I relocated 15 miles northeast to the Mountain Shadows desert resort, in a section of the Phoenix metro area appropriately named Paradise Valley.
Nestled amid Camelback Mountain, the 183-room property is fresh off a year-long, $100-million renovation. The project managed to preserve the mid-century charm of Mountain Shadows’ ﬁrst iteration in 1959 and augment it with high-tech event-space updates such as iPad reader boards and roll-down projection screens. The new property officially opened during my stay, but had already hosted its ﬁrst successful program during a soft launch. Mercedes-Benz chose Mountain Shadows — which offers 12,500 square feet of indoor space and 25,000 square feet of outdoor space — for a three-week rollout of its new AMG GT and GT C Roadster models.
The evening featured a meal from acclaimed executive chef Charles Wiley at Hearth ’61, the resort’s signature restaurant. A collection of ﬂavorful, Instagram-worthy plates — short-rib agnolotti, ricotta dumplings, and oysters that was key, because I had a 6 a.m. wake-up call for one of the true highlights of the trip: a sunrise hike through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. My guide, Armond Liebling from Arizona Outback Adventures, shared the history of Arizona’s famous saguaro cactus — it can grow to more than 70 feet — and tales of a lost gold mine hidden somewhere in the Superstition Mountains as we made the 1,100-foot climb to the top of Squaw Peak. “This,” Liebling declared as we took in a stunning 360-degree view of the surround-ing Sonoran Desert, “is why so many of us decide to call this place home.”
The Main Event
I could have easily enjoyed standing under the Arizona sun for a few more hours, but my Saturday plans included a seat to see the conclusion of March Madness. After a pit stop at the Phoenix Public Market for brunch, we headed north to the University of Phoenix Stadium, where fans had gathered for what appeared to be one of the largest tailgates in the history of pre-game rituals. There were food trucks, VIP sponsorship areas, a performance from alternative rock group Third Eye Blind, and beer gardens as far as the eye could see. But the real celebration was inside the stadium, which hosted two of the closest battles in recent Final Four his-tory — Gonzaga defeated South Carolina by four points, and North Carolina barely eked out a one-point victory over Oregon.
The city of Phoenix also emerged as a real champion. More than 77,000 ticket holders were in the stadium for Saturday’s games, marking the Final Four’s second-highest attendance. And even as all those fans were on the edge of their seats in Glendale, a free music festival was at full capacity downtown, with a lineup that included Blink-182, The Chainsmokers, and Aerosmith.
Phoenix handled all the challenges that come with welcoming hundreds of thousands of guests — bus logistics, crowd control, hotel inventory, security — without a glitch, proving that the city isn’t just hipper than you might think. It can also score some major victories for meetings and events.